The Charlotte Hornets are poised for a stellar 2014-15 NBA season behind a deep roster full of youth, athleticism and defensive prowess. Head coach Steve Clifford turned this team into an elite club on the less glamorous end of the floor last season by establishing a strong foundation of fundamental, unselfish basketball.
In order to make a leap this coming year, Charlotte will need a big uptick in production from one particular spot on the floor.
Al Jefferson, Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker will lock down the backcourt and the center spot with ease. At power forward, Charlotte has newcomer Marvin Williams as well as two incredibly talented top-10 draft picks in Noah Vonleh and Cody Zeller.
Small forward is a very different story.
Last Year's Performance
It would be tough to make a case against small forward being Charlotte's weakest position last year. The front office tried to mitigate some of the shortcomings by offering a king's random for Gordon Hayward in the offseason (four years, $63 million), but the Utah Jazz ultimately matched the contract and retained their restricted free agent.
Charlotte is left with much of the same. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is still the starter with two years of experience under his belt. He took a step back offensively in year two, struggling to find his place with Al Jefferson in town and Josh McRoberts breaking out.
However, he thrived in Clifford's new defensive scheme by posting a defensive rating of 103. Night in and night out, he locked onto the opposing team's best perimeter player and wreaked havoc.
The main problem is that he is a liability on offense, continuously getting lost on that end of the floor and having almost no impact. He shot a good percentage from the floor at 47 percent last season, but he doesn't expand his game whatsoever. In order to live up to his lofty draft status as a No. 2 pick, he has to add to his repertoire.
Behind him, things got even murkier. He is really the only prototypical NBA 3 on the roster. Jeff Taylor played just 26 games before succumbing to a ruptured Achilles, and he was mostly ineffective during his time.
Anthony Tolliver delivered some great outside shooting in his absence, and that was just about it. This wasn't a deep position for Charlotte last season whatsoever.
In fact, Charlotte had the least productive small forward corps in the entire NBA last year, according to HoopsStats.com, posting 14.9 points, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals a night. All were worst in the league.
Overall Grade: C-
What Is In Flux This Offseason
From a roster standpoint, what has changed is that Tolliver is gone and Marvin Williams is in. The only problem is that Williams has played mostly power forward in recent years and should fill that role in the starting lineup, replacing McRoberts. Chris Douglas-Roberts also appears to be nearing a deal with the Clippers.
Charlotte selected P.J. Hairston in the first round, but he projected as much more of a typical shooting guard. Lance Stephenson was brought in, sliding Gerald Henderson to the bench. Neither of them have ideal size to play small forward at all.
That leaves MKG and Taylor as the two who absolutely have to get it done. Charlotte can clearly succeed with MKG scoring seven points a game, but an improvement on his part could very well separate this team from the rest of the pack of middling playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
All this means that the main thing in flux is MKG's jumper. He shot 61 percent in the paint last season but under 31 percent everywhere else.
Charlotte needs him to improve offensively in order to improve the production from that position. His defensive ability is paramount to the team's success, but a lot hinges on his ability to take the next step. This is especially true with little else on the roster in terms of small forward talent. Taylor has been cleared for practice after his injury, but he has limited upside.
"Jeff (Taylor) has been doing a great job with his rehab. He's jumping around, shooting a lot. He'll be ready for training camp."— Charlotte Hornets (@hornets) June 18, 2014
What It Should Look Like Next Season
It is unreasonable to expect MKG to turn into an offensive threat overnight. Getting 10-12 points a night from him next year would be a big improvement. Clifford needs to get him out in the open court and have him more involved in the flow of the offense; otherwise, his growth will never come. Avoiding the growing pains will not give him the satisfaction of overcoming them.
The most beneficial scenario to employ in the present time would be to go with smaller lineups when MKG isn't on the floor. Henderson, Hairston and Stephenson are all a few inches and a couple pounds short of being able to play extended minutes at small forward, but all make up for it with athleticism.
The NBA is trending toward smaller lineups in general, and Stephenson is more than capable of guarding players with size on him. MKG should continue to improve and see an uptick in minutes, but there will still be a small amount of time when neither he nor Taylor is on the floor and Charlotte has to make do.
The size up front gives Clifford plenty of options with his backcourt. The additions of Vonleh and Williams inject some added size into the frontcourt in order to free up some other spots.
With the way this roster is situated, Charlotte is banking a lot on MKG. He will continue to wow people on defense, but Stephenson's presence will take an immense amount of pressure off of him. An exceptional defender in his own right, the triple-double machine will have no problem covering guys like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony for brief stretches.
This team needs to play to its strengths. Clifford's defensive system runs plenty deep enough to accommodate a small lineup from time to time. Expect to see Walker, Henderson and Stephenson all on the court together with some regularity, because the matchup problems that backcourt would create should cancel out any slight defensive handicaps.
Clifford should have more fun with this roster since he can mix and match. Henderson, Taylor, Hairston and Gary Neal all off the bench will be a potent second unit, something Charlotte severely lacked last season.
Charlotte cannot really mess up this situation. The issue last year pertained more to the lack of overall talent and not so much the lack of small forward depth. Having MKG and arguably Jeff Taylor as the only traditional small forwards should not hold this roster back at all due to the bevy of shooting guards.
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